The airships are part of Raytheon’s Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System, or JLENS, and when all is said and done they’ll offer the United States military what the defense contractor calls “an affordable elevated, persistent over-the-horizon sensor system” that relies on “a powerful integrated radar system to detect, track and target a variety of threats.”
Raytheon has just wrapped up a six-week testing period in the state of Utah and is now sending its JLENS fleet to the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. Once there, the Army intends to get some hands-on experience that will eventually culminate in launching the pair of airships over Washington, DC.
Once above the nation’s capital, JLENS will allow the Army to see for 320 miles in any direction from 10,000 feet above the earth. The system can be set up to operate on its own for an entire month without requiring refueling, and offers the Pentagon surveillance capabilities that dwarf other options at a penny of the cost.
Its manufactures say JLENS “enables commanders to defend against threats including hostile cruise missiles, low-flying manned and unmanned aircraft, tactical ballistic missiles, large caliber rockets and moving surface vehicles such as boats, SCUD-launchers, automobiles and tanks.”
“Affordable defense from real world threats,” Raytheon touts the system on its website.
To provide that security, though, the Army will send its integrated pair of airships — around 75 yards in length each — high into the sky carrying “powerful radars that can look deep into enemy territory.” First, however, the residents of the metropolitan Washington, DC area — and those in around a dozen states stretching the mid-Atlantic into New England — will be asked to ignore a pair of sophisticated spying machines.
“JLENS uses advanced sensor and networking technologies to provide 360-degree, wide-area surveillance and precision target tracking,” the Defense Department found in an unclassified audit of the system conducted in late 2011. But while that tracking is designed to go after enemy drones and spot other suspicious activity, it is also touted as being able to provide a good enough image of moving land targets — or essentially anything. In a press release from February, Raytheon said the JLENS surveillance radar can “simultaneously track hundreds of threats.”
Of course, the surveillance ship is only half of the JLENS program. That aircraft, one of the two tethered blimp-like vessles, is equipped with the appropriate lenses to wage sophisticated surveillance missions. Also included in the package is a separate ship equal in size that contains fire control radar that picks up data about incoming threats and then communicates with separate missile systems that can then wage attacks, or counter-attacks.
"We're proving blimps can see more than just the 50-yard line," JLENS program director Doug Burgess told Popular Science this week. "We really feel like we're at the point now — development is complete — and the system is ready to be deployed wherever it's needed."
According to PopSci, the JLENS already successfully completed two exercises in 2012 in which it guided a missile to shoot down other missiles — one over sea, another over land.
But while the likelihood of having one of the airships shoot down an armed drone heading for the White House seems unlikely, it’s a precaution that the Army intends on being prepared for — even at the widespread cost of losing privacy.
"When the government is conducting real-time aerial surveillance within the United States," Marc Rotenberg of the Electronic Privacy Information Center told The Huffington Post, "there are privacy issues that need to be addressed."
Raytheon estimates the using the JLENS instead of traditional, fixed-wing surveillance aircraft, could bring the cost of operation down by as much as 700 percent.
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